WASHINGTON — The latest Pentagon report on the "friendly fire" death of former NFL star Pat Tillman leaves open many questions, saving the answers for an Army four-star general to decide in coming weeks. But perhaps the most perplexing – and most obvious – question will remain: Whether the football star-turned-soldier received special treatment in the investigation of his death as he did during his service?
The Army scored a public-relations coup when the football star turned down a $3.6 million contract to join the Army. After he was accidentally killed by American troops in Afghanistan in 2004, the Pentagon initially bungled reporting the cause to the family. But since then, it has launched several investigations, including the one released Monday that implicated nine senior officers – including four generals – for their roles in earlier botched investigations of the circumstances surrounding Tillman's death.
Would nine officers have been implicated in a case that didn't involve a celebrity?
"It's much less likely that this would have happened," says Eugene Fidell, a Washington-based lawyer who specializes in military cases. The Pentagon's inspector general is "pretty independent," but may have prioritized cases according to the public hunger for information on the Tillman case, he adds.
The Pentagon's inspector general, who released his report Monday, found that the nine senior officers in some way contributed to inaccurate reports that Tillman died from enemy fire. The report did not say what motivated any of the officers to contribute to the false findings.
As genuine as Tillman's motivations to join the Army seemed to be in the first place, the Army's story afterward appeared to be anything but.
"The problem here was the Army made a big deal about Tillman when he went in, and what that means is the stakes were much higher when he died and when the Army basically permitted a cock-and-bull story to become the party line for awhile," Mr. Fidell says.
Tillman's immediate family on Monday released a sharp statement of dissatisfaction with the Pentagon and Army findings.
"The characterization of criminal negligence, professional misconduct, battlefield incompetence, concealment and destruction of evidence, deliberate deception, and conspiracy to deceive are not 'missteps,'" said the family, which included Tillman's parents, wife, and an uncle. "These actions are malfeasance.
"In our opinion, this attempt to impose closure by slapping the wrists of a few officers and enlisted men is yet another bureaucratic entrenchment," said the family's statement. It concluded: "The truth is not what we received today. Once again, we are being used as props in a Pentagon public relations exercise."
It wasn't Tillman's celebrity that led to the Pentagon's findings, it was the family's persistence, says Kathleen Duignan of the National Institute of Military Justice, an advocacy group here. The Tillman case was handled roughly the same way as it would have been for any other soldier at the beginning, but it turned into a bigger cause because of the family's efforts.
"Because of his celebrity, the family was able to get media coverage and attract attention in a way that other families may not have been able to," she says.
The senior officers' roles in the aftermath of Tillman's death, according to the Pentagon report, also led to a citation that posthumously awarded Tillman the Silver Star medal, for gallantry, on the basis of false information. "The citation and narrative justifications submitted to support the award of the Silver Star to Corporal Tillman contained inaccurate information that implied Corporal Tillman was killed by enemy fire," said Thomas Gimble, the Pentagon's acting inspector general in a briefing with reporters Monday.
His investigation had not been expected to recommend criminal charges against any of the individuals implicated in the matter, leaving it to the Army to decide how to proceed.
Army Gen. William Wallace, now in charge of the Army's training command, has begun to review the case and will make any recommendations for "corrective action" against those individuals within one month, Army officials said Monday.
Despite the inaccurate information supplied for the citation recommending Tillman for the Silver Star, Tillman would still receive the award, said Acting Secretary of the Army Peter Geren.
Tillman deserves it, says a retired colonel, who spoke on background because of the sensitivity of the situation. Taking the award away would only add insult to the family, the colonel says.